William L. Guy is remembered as a man who brought North Dakota politics into the modern era and put the Democratic-Non Partisan League on the state’s political map during his 12 years as governor,
Guy passed away Friday morning. He was 93.
Guy served a pair of two-year terms and two four-year terms from 1961-73, to become North Dakota’s longest serving governor. After a single term in the North Dakota House of Representatives from 1959-61, Guy defeated C.P. Dahl to become the state’s 26th governor.
“I think I saw (entering politics) as an opportunity to change some of the things that were being done in North Dakota, and to hopefully change North Dakota’s thinking toward national politics,” Guy told Gerald Newborg, former state archivist for the North Dakota Historical Society, for a 2004 article in North Dakota History.
Guy said North Dakota, despite its likelihood to vote Republican, was a state with a deep liberal tradition, including a state-run bank, mill and elevator — all established by the Non Partisan League in 1919.
Newborg said Guy was a pivotal figure in the state’s political history who brought many changes to the governor’s office and to the state during his 12 years in office.
“It’s a very sad day for me and North Dakota. He was an extraordinary person,” said retired Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. “He would rank as one of the giants in our state’s political history.”
After moving into the governor’s mansion, Guy undertook an effort to modernize not only the office of governor but state politics as a whole. On his watch, there was a movement to create a fully professional executive branch.
“He set the standard for a lot of governors that came after him. His administration set the standard for hiring only professional people, not political hacks,” former Democratic Gov. George Sinner said. Sinner served as governor from 1985-92.
Sinner noted that during the Guy administration a concerted effort was made to make state government more efficient and effective. It was during Guy’s tenure that the Office of Management and Budget was created. He also pushed for the creation of the state’s eight regional mental health districts and began the planning process for what is now the North Dakota Heritage Center.
“He was a man of high integrity and a leader among governors,” Sinner said.
“Bill was a remarkable public servant who led our state while such important projects like the interstate highway system and the Garrison Diversion (project) were built. Bill also began the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, our state’s highest honor,” Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a statement.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Guy was a great public servant during what he said was, like today, a pivotal time in the state’s history.
“One of my earliest memories of public service was the example of former Governor Bill Guy, who in many ways modernized North Dakota and brought us into the 20th century. He himself called it a transformative era,” Hoeven said.
Guy was the first chairman of the Midwest Governors’ Conference, a group he helped organize, in 1962. He also served as chairman of the National Governors’ Conference in 1966.
The other major component of Guy’s legacy is that he fostered the rise of the Democratic-NPL Party, formed in 1956, as a competitive party in the state.
With Guy’s ascension to the governor’s mansion, two-party politics took hold in North Dakota, a state that had been dominated by the Republican Party.
Sinner said Guy not only ushered in an era of Democratic-NPL leadership in the state but also ensured the party’s long-term viability through mentoring young politically-minded people.
“Byron (Dorgan) was pulled out of the woodwork by Guy,” Sinner said.
Dorgan became the youngest tax commissioner in state history in 1969 at age 26, when appointed by Guy.
“He was a friend and mentor to me and a wonderful leader for our state and nation,” Dorgan said. “I was inspired every day by his intellect, his courage and his steady leadership for our state.”
Retired Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Guy was a thoughtful, intelligent leader who didn’t hesitate in fostering compromise to meet the needs of the people.
“He just represented the best in politics. Completely honest; dedicated to doing the right thing,” Conrad said.
Conrad said Guy inspired a generation of future Democratic-NPL leaders such as himself, Dorgan and others.
“Bill Guy was a giant in North Dakota history. We all stood on his shoulders. He was a remarkable leader. He had a vision for the development of North Dakota and never wavered in its pursuit,” Conrad said.
Nancy Guy said her father was “the best example of leadership I’ve ever seen.”
Growing up, she said, she spent much of her time around her father during his involvement in dealing with state business.
“When he was governor, you are governor 24/7,” Nancy Guy said. “It wasn’t quite like he came home from the office at 5 p.m. and set down his briefcase and he was done. He was governor all the time.”
During his administration, Guy pushed hard for a number of federal projects. A total of 350 Minuteman missiles were put in place in the North Dakota prairie under Guy. He also worked for the completion of North Dakota’s portion of the interstate highway system and worked to have the Garrison Diversion project completed.
At the end of his term, Guy ran and lost the 1974 U.S. Senate race against Republican Milton Young, coming up short in what still stands one of the most competitive Senate races in state history. Young defeated Guy by 186 votes.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Guy was instrumental in changing the state’s political landscape.
“Bill Guy came to the state at a time when it was Camelot. He was North Dakota’s version of JFK,” Heitkamp said. “There’s people who accomplish great things and Bill Guy was one of those people.”
Guy was born Sept. 30, 1919, in Devils Lake. He spent most of his childhood in Amenia.
He graduated from North Dakota Agricultural College and served in the U. S. Navy in World War II. After the war, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and later became assistant county agent for Cass County.
After his failed Senate bid, Guy went on to work for Basin Electric Power Cooperative in 1979 as a consultant, until his retirement in 1985.
The Associated Press reported that Guy died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Memorial services are planned in Bismarck and Fargo next week. One service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at First Presbyterian Church in Bismarck. A private burial will later be held at North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan.
(Brian Duggan contributed to this story.)